Maybe you’ve seen Three Kings, Twelve Years a Slave or American Crime. Maybe you know that the Oscar-winning writer/producer behind those works also scripts comics, too. Last week at San Diego Comic-Con, John Ridley talked about why.
Ridley was at Comic-Con, at least in part, to talk up The American Way: Those Above and Those Below, a miniseries just kicked off by DC Comics. It’s a sequel to a 2006 miniseries that centered on how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s impacted a government-sponsored superhero program. Ridley’s work often harbors an unflinching focus on how racial politics complicate individual lives and social histories, and both American Way series explore how that complication would become even greater for people who are superpowered symbols.
I spoke with Ridley in the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown San Diego. Comic-Con fills up just about everywhere with loud, raucous revelry and Ridley offered to take a walk with me to find a quieter place to talk. The chaos was everywhere, though, so he just wound up holding my phone close to his face and mine to make sure we were both heard. Here’s what we talked about.
The Origins for Story and Creator
The American Way happens in its own pocket universe. I asked Ridley about the origination of the first series, and the kind of impulses he was trying to work out in this fiction.
John Ridley: Part of it just came from my love of comic books. I was a kid growing up, we’d be reading them—they were fantastic. I mean that literally and figuratively. That space where what writers and artists could do was absolutely amazing. I was a younger man in the mid-‘80s when I think there was a real shift in the quality and the auteurship. Obviously Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, but in particular The Question series by Dennis O’Neil and Denys Cowan. I just thought it was amazing, the grayness of it all. The fact that it was meant to be—just from irony— The Question is not about answers. It was just this guy out there, struggling. And I thought it was absolutely amazing.
But as a younger man, too, I remember when Black Lightning showed up. And I didn’t read a lot of Marvel as a kid so I didn’t see a lot of heroes of color that had pre-existed, so in the DC Universe, that was a big deal. John Stewart was around and he was always terrific. But it was always weird having the black replacement hero. So, for me, there were those elements of the quality of storytelling, the impact of just comic books in general, but also just what it was like for me when a hero of color arrived.
I wanted to combine all those thoughts and feelings into a story. I’ve always loved history. And I’ve always loved history because there was a certain resolve. You know, part of—obviously—science fiction/fantasy is about being speculative about tomorrow, about possibilities. Where history is about examining the things that did happen in certain realities.
And there was a story from history that I was aware of. Where Lyndon Johnson had gone to Kennedy and said, “Look—our biggest issues are not the Cubans or Russia—it’s race relations. It’s integration.” And when we see people being exceptional—there are always going to be deniers—but it makes it that much harder to deny. What if one of the astronauts was a black man? And what would that mean? And showing him working with and for the best and the brightest. So, ironically, Kennedy was like, “Yeah, that ain’t going to happen.”
But I thought that was an interesting departure point, that like the space program—which had very real-world applications—was also a bit agitprop. A lot of it was, “We’re going to the moon to show how great we are as Americans.” What if they did that with superheroes? Where a lot of it was certainly real, but part of what their mandate for existence was simply to make Americans feel good about themselves. And what if, in this new administration—new being the Kennedy administration—they said, “You know what we gotta do? We gotta bring in a black hero.”
So that’s where we began. A love of comic books, a love of history, a moment for me, when I was able to pick up a comic and go, “Oh, this is more specific in its representation.” But also to make sure the story was fantastic. And I don’t just mean a good read, but that when you read comic books, the art, the thru all of it, everything that is happening, the buyer deserves to have something that’s fantastic.
The Times, They Are A-Changin’
The American Way: Those Above and Those Below follows members of the Civil Defense Corps after the government-sponsored superteam is dissolved. They’re trying to find some purpose in normal life but their status as larger-than-life figures makes that hard, especially during a time of socio-political upheaval.
io9: In this new series, you’re acting in an analogous timeline where the hope and optimism of the Space Race era curdled after Martin Luther King was assassinated. In the real world, people started violently venting their frustrations in American cities. You have the same kind of things happening in this series, even though it’s set in the ‘70s, correct?
Ridley: Yeah, the second series is set 10 years later [in] 1972. But you’re absolutely correct; the beginning of the 1960s was nothing but optimism. The middle to later part of the 1960s was certainly a lot of agitation, but with the hope that MLK’s passive, non-violent resistance would show people there’s a better way. By the end of the ‘60s and in the ‘70s, there was just a cynicism and a disregard. Even though the Vietnam War was winding down, and even though there were some gains in civil rights, there were a lot of people who said, “It’s not enough,” and “The peace movement does not work,” thinking we’ve got to fight it out. So that’s where we see these primary characters of Jason Fisher, Amber Headen, and Missy Deveroux. They’re in these three different spaces, but dealing with the realities of the world where the optimism they were part of is stripped away, and you’re left with nothing but cynicism.
io9: It’s funny, because black superhero characters used to be locked into either a ghettofied, blaxploitation mode or a concept where they need to “rise above” that, which is an inherently racist notion in and of itself. How are you going to tackle that tension within this series?
Ridley: It’s difficult, because, unfortunately, when we tell these stories, even in 2017, characters who are black or Hispanic, or Muslim or another orientation, they’re still rather singular. They stand in for the whole population. So there are absolutely elements, and I don’t want to talk about any particular hero that’s out there, but, there are moments where I go, “Why does he have to be that guy?”
But you realize there’s not an opportunity for there to be 15, 20, 25 of them, but the ones that achieve some cultural density still are fairly singular. So what we want to try to do is—with regard to representations of different aspects of different thought—is hopefully say, “We’re not trying to be any one thing to all people, we hope within this story that we embrace the complex nature.”
And I think in the first issue, you can see between Jason and Evan, where Jason’s going, “I don’t understand.” I’m trying to do this. I’m trying to do that. I’m not necessarily trying to do this. And Evan is going, “Yeah, but you’re still trying to make the world into your vision.” So with that, you gotta take what comes with it.
On another space, we see Missy dealing with someone, in comparison, was progressive 10 years ago—and I think we see a lot of that right now. People who may have voted one way in the last election go, “Well, I gave that a chance and what did I get?” It kind of boggles the mind. And then with Amber, someone who’s just completely—“Hey, you know what? Optimism doesn’t work. Hope doesn’t work. I need to go out and I need to bring the pain!”
So what I think you’re getting at is its—trust me, [I’ve] done it in many spaces—it is very difficult to avoid people who come with an agenda in place. Jason is a black man, he’s going to get compared to this black character or that one. but it is one of those things that as a storyteller, I can’t help what people bring to it. I can hope what they bring away from it is more than what they thought initially, coming to the story.
Crisis on Opposite Earths
io9: You’re publishing under DC now. How would the characters in this pocket universe of yours react to the characters of the mainline DC universe? Let’s say Jason runs into Black Lightning, or Superman, or Batman;. How would that go down?
Ridley: First of all, I wish you were in charge of DC, for even bringing that up. It’s interesting because I remember when Milestone had these crossover events, just that sense of“These folks are not distilled concepts of people of color, these are people of color speaking for themselves.” And now they’re going to a space where it’s amazingly progressive and people are doing everything they can but the reaction was still like, “Heeey, whoaaa...”
io9: One of my favorites comics of all time is Icon #16, that’s the one where Icon and Superman meet. And Icon is obviously a Superman analogue, right? Alien crashes on Earth... lands in a plantation in the 19th Century instead of a farm in 20th-Century Kansas. It was Dwayne [McDuffie] talking about white privilege before it was even a term, and essentially saying “You had the same journey but you get to be Superman because you look this way.”
Ridley: Your passport is already stamped. And mine never will be. To me, there would be very similar issues, whether it’s Jason facing off against whoever’s a bit more of a street-level hero, or whether Amber goes after Supergirl: “You’ve got all the powers in the universe and you’re still playing dress up!” Or Missy saying to people, “You don’t have to placate. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of being white, it’s not anti-black.”
To me, to have characters who can say that in a very fundamental way, I think that’s the big thing. A lot of people say, “It must be great”—and it is—”to be able to write a character like Jason.” But it’s equally great to write a character like Missy, and say, “Well I’m going to put this through my filter now...” And here’s how, to me, this character would represent.
The Lost Cause
When DC Comics offered the opportunity to talk to Ridley, I knew I’d have to ask him about Confederate, since the screenwriter’s work has dealt with the transatlantic slave trade and written science fiction.
io9: The things you said about speculative fiction have me wondering about your reaction to Confederate, the new show that got announced from the Game of Thrones producers. There’s already been some pushback because they’re dealing with an alternate universe where the Civil War ended one way—there was a successful succession—and slavery still exists. Would you mind giving me your thoughts?
Ridley: [pauses for a long beat] Well, the preamble and the caveat is that I work in the space, I know some of these people, and I have to be genuinely diplomatic in what I say. Look, I never hope it’s a litmus test in who can say what, who can write what kind of stories. I’ve also told stories that have taken place in the American slave era, prior to the Civil Rights movement. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think that these folks—if this is what they choose to tell a story about—they’re really going to have to rise to the occasion.
I don’t want to say that somehow people of color own every Civil Rights or slave story, or it can be told [only] one way. Again, I’ve visited that time space so I can’t say you shouldn’t do it. But when you look at the lack of overall representation, to say that “This is what we’re going to speculate about” is a charged thing to say.
Knowing that all of us have blind spots in terms of our storytelling, I think the makeup of the individuals who are going to be telling that story is important. Exceptional latitude is going to need to be given to other people to make sure there are other emotions that come through that are correct. I didn’t live in 1849 when 12 Years a Slave was set, but I was working as someone who struggled to make sure that document was left behind. So I’ve been on both sides of it. I get it.
But I also understand the personal amount of research or pain or baggage that I carry with me when we do things like Guerilla or American Crime, or whatever. So I look forward to all the people involved proving that they have the time, capacity, patience, to tell a story that surprises—put that in bold and italics—surprises all of us. I didn’t come up with this idea, but if they’re going to tell that story, then I look forward to being able to tell a story where there was no slavery, or where people of color were in charge.
io9: Those stories exist, as with Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood books. I wonder if the green light would happen as easily with those adaptations….
Ridley: That would be part of my thing. You know, I’ve been blessed. I don’t want to make this about me or the things I want to do, but, there’s still that struggle for people of color to say, “What about this?” or, “How about that?” And those sorts of works don’t get the blessing of “Do it! Go with that.”
A Question in Search of an Answer
Steering the conversation back to comics, I asked Ridley if there were any characters in the DC Comics canon he’d like to write.
Ridley: I’m very excited to see Black Lightning coming to television. Very excited to see Cyborg in Justice League. Very excited to see what his spinoff movie is going to be like. You know, in the DC Universe, those were the guys who arrived on the scene when I was just at that age, and I feel like they’ve grown up in interesting ways. I’d love to see Mr. Terrific. I love what he’s about. I’d love to see Vixen. I would love to see a...
io9: She’s right there waiting for someone to champion. She’s been on some of the TV shows. But the story potential for her is so great; she’s a supermodel with fantastic animal powers...
Ridley: Just everything about her. Not just in the writing; I can’t help but think, “Who would you cast as that part?” At this moment, that’s a character that needs to be a priority, as DC is sort of plotting out their movie universe. If it were me, the question is who are the easter eggs you want in that Cyborg movie? Mr. Terrific? You don’t say a word about it, and when the movie comes out you say, “Oh, shit, is that Mr. Terrific?”
The one other character I already said I love: The Question. Why the Question does not have—and I know I’m saying something now that somebody else is going to repurpose and I’ll lose out—why the Question doesn’t have a film is beyond me. I would do a Question film in a heartbeat.
io9: I wrote an article about that specific run, which I also love. I identified with that character a lot because he wasn’t perfect. Vic Sage was didn’t do anything right.
Ridley: In the first issue, he gets his arm broken, shot in the head, dropped in the river...and you’re the hero.
io9: And at the end of 36 issues, he gets airlifted out of the city he was trying to save. Because he just couldn’t do it.
Ridley: It’s a great, great run.
io9: We don’t think about failure enough in superhero fiction. What does it mean when you don’t win? And I think that would be a great thing to explore in an adaptation. Plus, his visual? A guy with no face? Come on.
Ridley: I started out in a noir space when I was writing, and just that look — that alienation and obsession. He’s obsessed with fixing his city, but he’s alienated from it in every way, shape, and form. It was just a great, great, run. And I think the only unfortunate thing was that it comes out of the same space as Watchmen and Dark Knight. Like now, say you’re doing a great series in the Game of Thrones era, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ve got this other machine that just sucks all the air out. But it’s one of the truly great series in the history of comic books.
Adapting the Work of a Science Fiction Master
While we talked, Ridley mentioned Needle in a Timestack, the science fiction movie that he’s working on in its early stages, based on a short story by Robert Silverberg.
Ridley: So, it’s a Robert Silverberg short story—very short story. But, like the best science fiction, it is less about the science and more about the possibilities, and more about the very question of “What if time travel—like really good science, the way people are on their iPhones now—is just part of our lives?” And if time travel was really part of our life, it’d still in a space [where] the rich have it, like with private jets. It’s aspirational and you kind of got to put up with it, if you don’t have it. What if?
What does love mean? What do relationships mean? What is the timeless nature of love? Is it better to love a lot and know it’s going to be short? Or is it better to fight for a relationship that’s going to go for a long time? But in that fighting, you never get to appreciate your partner and who you’re with. It’s an amazing story. It’s a very beautiful story. It’s one that, frankly, I’ve been chasing for maybe twenty years. I mean really chasing, because I didn’t own the underlying rights, and I finally got the opportunity.
If I was going to say something to your readers, perseverance matters. And people say, “Wow, it’s really great that you get to do these things.” I’m fortunate because I’ve had a lot of really great people supporting me, but I have to say, more than anything else, just being dogged about the things I believe in, and Needle in a Timestack is one of those things. I can’t wait. We’re putting it together now and I can’t wait to start shooting and bring it to an audience. I also think it’s a little different in that, obviously, I’ve worked with a lot of very politicized pieces. It’s not an accident. I’m very happy for it. But it is nice to look at the different space and work in a film that is going to be colorblind, but race-aware.
What we’re trying to put together—to follow up about what we talked about earlier, the “Why does it have to be like that?”—this is one where it’s just going to be people struggling with something that’s extraordinary, but see those extraordinary struggles about love and life and relationship reflected in more of a world that we live in.
io9: It’s interesting because some of what you’re saying is the same reaction I had to the Wrinkle in Time trailer. “Of course Oprah Winfrey could be a cosmic force in the universe.” She’s a cosmic force in this universe. And you can have these characters — the “Wise Woman Archetype” who don’t have to look like a suburban mom from the 1950s.
Ridley: We also have people of color who are marginalized into that magical part, or that sidekick part. The great thing about watching that trailer is you go, “This really looks like the world that we live in.” But rendered in a big, inviting way. So, we want to do the same thing with Needle in a Time Stack. To take very fundamental stories that are often told from the POV of the prevailing culture, and say, “No, these are relevant stories” for any culture. For any one.
io9: It’s funny. I watched the new Planet of the Apes movie... it reminds [me] of black freedom struggles throughout history. But at the same time, I was heartened, because that’s a universal story. You know? It’s not like we were the first people in slavery, or the first people to fight for civil rights, but it’s a universal story. So I felt it was good to have that response because it reminds me of the work that people all around the world did to become free. It’s now something that people can use to inspire other kinds of stories, and that’s inherently a good thing.
Ridley: Well, it’s interesting to me, because, you look at Planet of the Apes and where it really originated, back in the ‘60s, and what it’s about is ultimately—and I want to be very careful, because I’m talking about the ideology of the story, not the iconography of things that are happening in it—but it’s the story of the prevailing culture losing their power. And you have this other group over here saying, “Hey, you know what? We just want to live. We just want to go on. But we’re in ascension right now and you need to learn to deal with us. They say peace over and over again, we’ve got a waning culture going, ‘Well, we can’t accept that. And we’ll fight you to the death.’
I think that is very interesting, because, to me—and by the way Rod Serling co-wrote the film version of the original Planet of the Apes—to me, that’s what it was about. “You bastards, you changed everything” There are levels there: a different group tearing down these icons that you built up but it was you actually destroyed this stuff; we’re just picking up the pieces. And I think that’s always very, very powerful. I’ve not seen the new film yet. Clearly it is very powerful and well rendered in terms of how people are receiving it. But imagine if that were people of color, and we’ve just taken over, and we’ve got no issue, we’re just living in peace over here. The repsonse would be something like, “Yeah, we can’t accept that. So every time we find a gun, we’re going to go at you.”